Legal aid and civil justice

Effective access to the courts is being threatened.

Yesterday's written statement of the Lord Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke QC MP began well enough. Introducing the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, he said:

Protecting the public from crime, ensuring those who break the law face the consequences, and providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice are fundamental responsibilities of the state towards its citizens.

So there you have it. In respect to both civil and criminal justice, providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state towards its citizens.

But in respect of civil justice -- where one party takes another to court -- what does that actually mean?

Civil courts have two broadly overlapping functions. They provide a forum for settling disputes and they provide the means by which individuals can rely on their legal rights. Ideally, a civil court should do both: disputes are resolved by a judge determining the respective legal rights of the claimant and defendant.

In practice, however, almost all civil litigation is settled before it gets anywhere close to a judge for final disposal. As a general rule, litigation is settled in favour of the party in the stronger negotiating position: the party with more money, with better access to appropriate legal advice, and with the greater ability to assume the risk of losing.

In this way, the early settlement of civil disputes will usually tend to disadvantage the claimant or defendant that is weaker than the opposing party. It is only if the claimant can get their case before an impartial and independent court that they can hope to take the benefit of their legal rights. Otherwise, civil litigation is reduced to what the stronger party can get away with. Dispute resolution -- even "early dispute resolution" -- is not identical to access to justice. Indeed, it can mean the reverse.

With this in mind, let us see what Clarke also said yesterday in the written statement, specifically about civil justice:

In civil justice, we have a system burdened by spiraling costs, slow court procedures, unnecessary litigation, and too limited an awareness of alternatives to court -- all of which add to a fear of a compensation culture. In particular, our current system of legal aid too often encourages people to bring their problems before the courts, even when they are not the right place to provide good solutions and sometimes for litigation that people paying out of their own pocket would not have pursued.

However, these appear to be weasel words.

Take, for example, "our current system of legal aid too often encourages people to bring their problems before the courts" and replace the word "encourages" with the word "enables". If the reality of the matter is that the current system of legal aid enables weaker parties to have access to justice - and the determination of their legal rights by judges - this cannot be sidestepped easily by mischaracterising this access as "encouragement".

Similarly, take "sometimes for litigation that people paying out of their own pocket would not have pursued" and replace the word "would" with "could". Again, if people cannot pursue litigation but for the system of legal aid, then Clarke is mischaracterising the effect of that system.

So in one written statement, Clarke gives an assurance that he accepts providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state towards its citizens; and then a few sentences later he undermines that assurance in respect of civil justice by deftly casting aspersions on those who use legal aid so as to gain access to the courts for the determination of their legal rights.

In fact, the assault on the civil legal aid system announced yesterday is horrific and wrong-headed.

Instead of seeking to target civil legal aid on cases which may not otherwise be able to proceed to court, the Ministry of Justice is simply taking whole areas of civil law out of the system altogether.

At a stroke, legal aid will no longer be available for clinical negligence, employment, immigration, and welfare benefits cases. It will also not be available for most private family law cases, debt and housing issues, and education cases.

Just listing these areas of law makes one realise that it will be those less able and less equipped to deal with the stress and sheer expense (and costs risks) of civil litigation. Without civil legal aid, weak parties will simply be at the mercy of the litigation strategy of the stronger party.

For example, in family cases - as the Conservative MP Helen Grant pointed out yesterday in the Commons:

mediation is no panacea and that it can fail badly in family cases where there is an imbalance in power.

And it gets worse. The hope of the Ministry of Justice is that some of those who will no longer have access to civil legal aid will obtain legal help on a "no win no fee" basis, especially in respect of clinical negligence. This means that the claimant's lawyers will, if successful, charge an additional "uplift" on their fees, sometime up to 100 per cent of their actual charges, to the losing party. As the defendant will invariably be some part of the National Health Service, these "savings" will in practice cost the taxpayer twice the amount: it will just be the Department of Health's problem, not the Ministry of Justice's.

Then there is the general effect of their being more claimants and defendants without legal assistance. "Litigants in person" are a considerable drain on any courts resources. What should be one hour applications will tend to last one day, and trials which should take one day will tend to last a week. Accordingly, removing civil legal aid will be a false economy for the civil justice system as a whole.

There is no perfect form of ensuring access to justice for civil litigants without private resources. And the Ministry of Justice is having to make savings thrust upon it by the government as a whole. It cannot be blamed as if this were a policy that it formulated free from budget restraints.

All that said, the cuts to civil justice legal aid make no sense on their own terms and could cost the state more overall.

There is no reason to believe that law firms will be able to provide advice to those who no longer qualify; and those firms that do will seek often to burden the taxpayer by other means, through higher costs.

Individuals without civil legal aid or other access to lawyers will simply not seek to rely on their legal rights, or will be bullied into unfair settlements, or will clog up the already inefficient civil courts. None of these are attractive outcomes.

It may be that our Lord Chancellor sincerely believes providing swift, cost-effective and fair access to justice is a fundamental responsibility of the state towards its citizens. However, his department's current civil justice aid policy means this "fundamental responsibility" will certainly not be discharged in practice.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a practising solicitor.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Theresa May missed an easy opportunity on EU citizens' rights

If the UK had made a big, open and generous offer, the diplomatic picture would be very different.

It's been seven hours and 365 days...and nothing compares to EU, at least as far as negotiations go.

First David Davis abandoned "the row of the summer" by agreeing to the EU's preferred negotiating timetable. Has Theresa May done the same in guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens living here indefinitely?

Well, sort of. Although the PM has said that there have to be reciprocal arrangements for British citizens abroad, the difficulty is that because we don't have ID cards and most of our public services are paid for not out of an insurance system but out of general taxation, the issues around guaranteeing access to health, education, social security and residence are easier.

Our ability to enforce a "cut-off date" for new migrants from the European Union is also illusory, unless the government thinks it has the support in parliament and the logistical ability to roll out an ID card system by March 2019. (It doesn't.)

If you want to understand how badly the PM has managed Britain's Brexit negotiations, then the rights of the three million EU nationals living in Britain is the best place to start. The overwhelming support in the country at large for guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, coupled with the deep unease among Conservative MPs about not doing so, meant that it was never a plausible bargaining chip. (That's before you remember that the bulk of the British diaspora in Europe lives in countries with small numbers of EU citizens living in the UK. You can't secure a good deal from Spain by upsetting the Polish government.) It just made three million people, their friends and their families nervous for a year and irritated our European partners, that's all.

If the United Kingdom had made a big, open and generous offer on citizens' rights a year ago, as Vote Leave recommended in the referendum, the diplomatic picture would be very different. (It would be better still if, again, as Vote Leave argued, we hadn't triggered Article 50, an exit mechanism designed to punish an emergent dictatorship that puts all the leverage on the EU27's side.)

As it happens, May's unforced errors in negotiations, the worsening economic picture and the tricky balancing act in the House of Commons means that Remainers can hope both for a softer exit and that they might yet convince voters that nothing compares to EU after all. (That a YouGov poll shows the number of people willing to accept EU rules in order to keep the economy going stretching to 58 per cent will only further embolden the soft Brexiteers.)

For Brexiteers, that means that if Brexit doesn't go well, they have a readymade scapegoat in the government. It means Remainers can credibly hope for a soft Brexit – or no Brexit at all. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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